However, not days later, western journalists and analysts sympathetic to the post-2003 “Green Zone” order were reporting a newly emerging threat in the very same areas that Abadi had just declared secured. Ben Van Heuvelen, editor-in-chief of the Iraq Oil Report website, tweeted an apparent exclusive story about “mysterious militants” who were taking on ISIS alumni, and recruiting them and other insurgents into a new group called the “Steadfast Ones with White Flags”. According to the report, this was sparking fears of a fresh insurgency under the leadership of an offshoot faction.
As is usually the case in Iraqi political and security affairs, a lot of noise is made about a lot of nothing with the intention of obfuscating the extent of the severe structural flaws that the Green Zone regime is propped up on. Many western journalists and analysts – who have made careers off of the back of Iraqi suffering – were keen to hype up Abadi’s “victory”, and to peddle the lie that ISIS had been defeated by Iraqi forces under his command and direction. The aim behind this, of course, is to help him secure a second term in the upcoming elections, particularly as he was installed as prime minister in 2014 without having actually been elected by the people he claims to represent.
The reality of the issue is actually quite simple. The “White Flags” are pro-Baghdad propagandists’ attempts to make it appear that this is an entirely new group with some former ISIS members in their ranks, when in reality it is simply vanilla ISIS. There are no “White Flags” and ISIS has not undergone any rebranding – ISIS are still ISIS, and the only difference with the extremist group is that they have transitioned from a strategy of holding territory to a guerrilla warfare strategy in order to capitalise on their strengths and exploit the Iraqi government’s weaknesses. In essence, they have reverted back to their pre-2014 strategy, making this business as usual for the terrorist organisation.
However, there are a few key differences that attempt to portray this at best as an “ISIS-inspired” militant group. Firstly, the flag bears the name of the “Movement of the Supporters of Islam”, or Harakat Ansar al-Islam in Arabic. Underneath the black coloured icon is further writing that says al-Sufyanioun which roughly translates as “the Sufyanids”, a reference to Abu Sufyan who was the father of Muawiyyah bin Abi Sufyan, the first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty.
What is important to note is that the image is clearly photoshopped. The original image can easily be found online, which shows that there was no flag to begin with, and the flag that has been edited into the image is very clearly a shoddy fake. Further, the use of “al-Sufyanioun” is a dead giveaway that Baghdad-sponsored propagandists are behind this latest disinformation campaign, as any reference to the Umayyads – who are reviled by Shia fundamentalists – is designed to raise the hackles of common Shia Iraqis who feel threatened by genuine extremist groups like ISIS, and would now feel that they are facing yet another “Sunni threat”. There are many such fake photographs online that show the extent the regime is attempting to influence the discourse of the story, and that story is the failure of Baghdad in eliminating the ISIS threat.
Many of the same journalists and analysts mentioned above have since resurfaced and peddled the story of these “White Flags” wreaking havoc and shedding blood in Diyala, Ninawa, Salahuddin and other Iraqi governorates. Take, for instance, the Washington Institute’s old hand Iraq analyst Michael Knights.
Knights – long known for his pro-Green Zone analyses that fail to address the regime’s rampant sectarianism – has co-authored an article on Iraq’s security in an ostensibly post-ISIS Iraq with Iraqi Brigadier General Ismael Alsodani, an ally of sectarian Shia Islamist parliamentarian Hanan al-Fatlawi. Amidst their recommendations of how Iraq can incorporate the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), or Hashd al-Sha’abi as they are known in Arabic, into the federal police and army, Knights has managed to include the “White Flags” as a major security threat that the Iraqi state will have to face.
Knights and Alsodani even go far as to describe them as “IS remnants”, utilising another acronym for the ISIS terror group. Therefore, if the White Flags are simply remnants of an ISIS force, that must surely mean that the group is simply plain old ISIS, and that they have not yet been defeated by Abadi or his American and Iranian backers. There is no new group, and they are not recruiting former ISIS operatives – it is simply ISIS being ISIS.
The ISIS threat is still very much alive and will play a significant role in destabilising Iraq, no matter how much people attempt to blow Abadi’s trumpet before the upcoming elections in May.